SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The San Francisco 49ers' group of tight ends took another hit Tuesday.
To make room for NaVarro Bowman's addition to the active roster, tight end Vance McDonald was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a back injury that has kept him out of San Francisco's last three games.
With just 2 catches on 8 targets this year, McDonald hasn't yet developed into the receiving threat the 49ers hoped they were getting when they took him in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Rice. Selected 55th overall, McDonald went nine spots ahead of Kansas City's Travis Kelce, who has 51 catches for 688 yards and four touchdowns this season.
McDonald was drafted to replace departed free-agent tight end Delanie Walker whose versatility was key in San Francisco's Super Bowl run in 2012. Not only was Walker a speedy, down-field target, but he was a key blocker on the edge in the running game.
Through his first 23 games in the NFL, McDonald's best work has come as a run blocker. This year, McDonald was Pro Football Focus' second-ranked blocking tight end. Coincidentally, Walker tops the list. Kelce is ranked 15th.
The 49ers' tight end situation this season has been a key contributor to the perceived identity crisis that has plagued the offense this year. Vernon Davis is having a down season, having dealt with ankle and back injuries in the early going. After catching 13 touchdowns in 2013, Davis is averaging a career-low 21.5 yards per game and has just two scores, both coming in the season opener.
Reserve tight end Derek Carrier showed flashes of being a receiving threat, catching nine passes for 105 yards in 11 games, but hit injured reserve before the team's Thanksgiving loss to the Seahawks with a foot injury.
Coming off back surgery in July to relieve a pinched nerve, Garrett Celek becomes the 49ers' No. 2 tight along side the struggling Davis. Celek had San Francisco's second-longest reception (22 yards) in Sunday's loss to the Raiders, his first catch of the season.
The loss of McDonald could mean more playing time for fullback Bruce Miller, whose playing time has become an indicator of success. San Francisco is 7-0 when Miller plays at least 40 percent of the team's offensive snaps, and are win-less when he doesn't. Miller played 9 and 16 plays in San Francisco's two recent losses the Seahawks and Raiders, respectively, with McDonald unavailable.